(This article has been amended after a diligent reader pointed out historical research concerning Tolkien and Rayner Unwin, as well as the timeline of the publishing of The Lord of the Rings, that I had not seen before. You can read that piece here. My text has been slightly altered to reflect the facts.)
“Goblin Feet” is the title of J.R.R . Tolkien’s first published work. The poem came out in 1915 when he was twenty-three in an anthology produced by Blackwell’s Books. Near the end of his life Tolkien stated that he despised the poem: “I wish the unhappy little thing, representing all that I came (so soon after) to fervently dislike, could be buried for ever.” The below picture of the text of “Goblin Feet” is from a collection of poems for children. Notice how they spelled his name wrong! Imagine if Tolkien (aka Tolkein) had given up writing stories after penning “Goblin Feet.” Or if he had died in World War I (he went to the front lines less than a year after “Goblin Feet” was printed). Either way, Tolkien would have been a tiny footnote in literary history: the author of a sweet but silly little thing about flitter-mice and leprechauns.
A lot of people don’t know that The Lord of the Rings almost didn’t get published. Tolkien had a falling out with the first house that offered to publish his epic. But they kept stalling on the release date, upsetting Tolkien who had spent the last fourteen years laboring over the book.
In a rash move, Tolkien withdrew the manuscript from the publisher, and then he became very depressed about burning this literary bridge. That summer (1952) he went and stayed in the English countryside with some friends of C.S. Lewis—a Mr. and Mrs. Sayer. They had gotten their hands on the complete manuscript of The Lord of the Rings and had become the author’s first real fans. Tolkien spent his vacation tromping through the Worcestershire hills with the Sayers, picnicking with his hosts like good Hobbits on bread, cheese, apples and cider, and helping them in their garden. The Sayers had a newfangled device that Tolkien had never used before. It was a portable tape recorder. And they coaxed him to read his favorite scenes from The Lord of the Rings into the thing. After they played back Tolkien’s recitation of “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” Sayers claims that he asked the author, “Surely you know that’s really good?” We don’t for certain what Tolkien said in reply. But it is really good. In fact, it’s brilliant. And spoken by Tolkien, the rolling of his r’s on “a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!) are golden alliterations.
Fortunately, Tolkien had already been working with Rayner Unwin to get the trilogy produced. Rayner was the son of Stanley Unwin, publisher of The Hobbit. Back in the day, Unwin had paid his son Rayner (ten years old at the time) one shilling to review the manuscript of The Hobbit. The boy had written in his report: “. . . it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.” And now Rayner was all grown up and working for the family business. You probably know the rest of the story. . . . So if you’ve composed a few crap poems in your life (or some bad short stories), but you still have a desire to write that great novel, forget about those goblin feet dragging you down, and put your industrious Hobbit hands to work. Tolkien typed the entire manuscript of The Lord of the Rings (nearly half a million words). Twice. And he did it using only two fingers!